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Malcolm and Estrella find they can't avoid the inevitable. Paola uses her seamstress skills. Carlo worms his way into Kosso's confidence, while John and Eriana meet with Kosso's father. R rating near the end of the this chapter. You've been warned.

Italian: Salute! To your health! Si, e vero. Yes, it's true.

I gave Kosso the first name of Niccolò, which happens to be the first name of Machiavelli, author of The Prince. This story takes place a bit before Machiavelli, though.

Cuvaccio is meant to be Kuvak, the Vulcan minister. I made him Kosso's father in this story.)

Something tickled Malcolm's nose, and he nearly sneezed. He managed to stifle the impulse without hurting his shoulder. He opened his eyes to see a mass of dark hair spread all over his chest. A soft smile passed over his lips; Estrella's head lay on his chest, her eyes closed in sleep, her arm thrown over him in a possessive gesture. She'd fallen asleep in the chair by his side and was using him as a pillow.

That cannot be a comfortable position, he thought. He'd dozed during long watches onboard Enterprize and paid for it later. He wished to spare Estrella the aches and the stiffness from being in such an awkward position. Though she seemed flexible enough...

Malcolm quickly cut off that particular thought. He had no right to think of her in that were willing to die for her, you sod. You told her so. Granted, some of the memory was blurry, but he remembered enough of it. Of course, he could blame it on the medicines that the doctors slipped into his wine...

No. There was no denying the plain truth. What he said to her came from his heart. How did such a slip of a woman manage to ease her way into his soul without even trying? He didn't know, but he did know a simple fact: he couldn't live without her.

Gently, Malcolm wrapped his uninjured arm around her and pulled her closer to him. She murmured, but didn't awake, as she curled up next to him on the narrow pallet and snuggled closer to him. He allowed himself to lay his cheek against the top of her head.

It wasn't the first time he'd shared his bed with a woman. But this was the first time he'd awoken in a woman's arms and absolutely nothing had happened between them during the night.

No, something had happened, but it was spiritual, not physical. Malcolm recalled their conversation and his smile widened a fraction. The lightning strike. I owe Father an apology when I see him next. Now that is something I've never dreamed of thinking.

Her jasmine-scented perfume lulled him into a pleasant sense of contentment. Normally, such a state would have horrified him, but it seemed right, at this moment. No matter what happened in the future, he knew she would be at his side.

Malcolm closed his eyes and reveled in the peace, at least for this short time.

Floccia slipped inside the room, Lucasi close behind him. He stopped so abruptly that Lucasi nearly ran into him. Lucasi was about to protest, but Floccia made a shushing gesture and stepped aside for Lucasi to see their patient's bed. The older doctor's mouth dropped open in utter shock.

Floccia wasn't surprised at all. He'd seen how Malcolm and Estrella looked at each other. It was only a matter of time. He wasn't worried about her virtue; Malcolm struck him as an honorable man and wouldn't take advantage of her.

If the lady was willing, though, that was another thing altogether, and Floccia didn't begrudge them their happiness. Unlike many of his countrymen, Floccia believed God understood and forgave certain instances.

Like this one.

He pulled Lucasi back out into the corridor. “Let them be. They have been through much.”

Lucasi chuckled low in his throat and replied, “Yes. They deserve this peace, especially with what is to come. Did you talk with young Traveo when he was here last?”

“Yes, he informed me,” Floccia said soberly. “I only hope that this calculated plan of Lady Eriana's is successful.”

“I advise you not to underestimate her or her handmaidens. They are as wily as any man in Venice or Milan.” Lucasi indicated the sick room with his chin, “and as brave as any condotteri.”

Paola sat in one of the inner rooms of the palazzo, her hands working the needle through a piece of white satin. She sighed and tried to concentrate on her work. The other women chattered as they sewed pearls and lace onto their pieces. Lady Eriana's words came back to haunt her.

I'll spare no expense for your wedding trousseau, Paola. Choose the fabrics, the lace, the jewelry, to suit your heart's content. Put your heart and soul into the work; make your dream come true. For it will, I swear it.

Paola sighed and surveyed her stitching. The golden thread wove its way through the hem as if it had a life of its own. She wondered how Carlo was faring in his own business; they had their own parts to play in Lady Eriana's scheme, and Kosso was a huge fish about to be hauled into a net. She stifled a smile of pure malice, for the others would notice.

The needle had punctured the fabric in places; she winced and smoothed the silk. Such holes could be disguised by thread or lace, as if the decorations were meant to be there in the first place. I'm stronger than I realize, if I'm able to do this without realizing it. Perhaps a jewel sewed into the gaps here, and another one, here, could suffice. Yes, that will do.

She missed Estrella's steady presence. Although the two women had barely gotten to know one another, Paola wanted her here, helping her prepare for a wedding. At least Carlo and Captain Archer had located Estrella and Lieutenant Reed, with Doctor Floccia. Paola gritted her teeth at the news of Reed's injury. Kosso was behind it, she was certain, and it was another mistake for which he would pay.

“Paola? May I speak with you?”

Lady Eriana's voiced jarred Paola out of her thoughts. She immediately laid aside her sewing and curtsied at her mistress. “Of course, my Lady.”

Eriana ushered her away from the other women and guided her into a smaller room. A robe of emerald- colored silk lay on a table. Paola had never seen its design before and it caught her attention. She reached over and touched the beautiful fabric. The scalloped sleeves and ornate collar complemented the wide sash.

“This is hauntingly beautiful,” Paola whispered. “Is this from the Spanish court?”

Eriana shook her head, and Paola thought she saw a wistfulness in the older woman's expression. “This is one of Estrella's robes, from her native country. Can you fashion something similar to this, for her?”

Paola gave Eriana an absent nod. “I will have to study this design, but yes, I believe I can.”

Eriana smiled and put a hand on the robe. “Estrella came to us with very little of her own. Her homeland is so very far away from here, and when her father died, she was stranded. So much tragedy in her life; I think she deserves some joy.”

“I wholeheartedly agree, my Lady. I will start on this project right away.”

“Thank you, Paola.” Eriana's own smile was mysterious. “I will be forever in your debt.”

Paola looked askance at her. “No, my Lady, it is I who will be forever in your debt, if your plan succeeds.”

“Kosso believes we have obediently granted his wish, but neither Captain Archer, nor I, nor your uncle have confirmed it with our own words. It seems that he forgot about that, but that doesn't really surprise me at all.”

“This is an elaborate scheme, if it seems that I'm making my wedding trousseau. I know it's to deter Kosso's spies, but--”

“We need some verisimilitude, Paola, to lend credence to his belief.” Eriana glanced down at Estrella's robe with another small smile. “As for this, I wish this gift to be a special one.”

Paola tried to keep the envy out of her own tone. “Estrella has an acceptable suitor?”

“Well...not officially. I suspect her situation is very much like yours, Paola. You two have much in common, despite your differences.” Eriana's smile widened a trifle. “I must meet with Kosso's father, so I'll leave you to your work, Paola. Keep me appraised of your progress.”

“Yes, Lady.” Paola dropped into a curtsey as Eriana left the room. She straightened and went back to examining the exotic robe. Simple, yet complicated, just like its owner. Paola was confident she could duplicate the pattern.

Who is Estrella's suitor? That English lieutenant? Paola wondered as she began to take measurements. If that was the case, then Captain Archer's household was about to become more unusual, in a good way.

Carlo gritted his teeth as he sat through Kosso's long-winded explanation of his architectural plans. Granted, the new palazzo boasted multiple access points to the canals, an elaborate system of rooms and halls for security, and large storerooms. This was more like a fortress than a home, more like a palace than a place for business.

I will not choke the life of this man. I will not run him through with my sword. I will not smother him in his sleep. I will not poison his midday meal. Carlo ran through a litany of 'will nots' and 'should nots'. He gripped the compass in his left hand and the quill with his right. Kosso didn't suspect him of any duplicity, and it was Carlo's mission to keep it that way.

Although Captain Archer hadn't answered Kosso's proposal with a direct answer, news of wedding preparations reached Kosso's ears. He immediately assumed that Archer had given in to his demands. Lady Eriana continued her visits to the nobility of Venice, presumably to spread word of the impending nuptials. Kosso's own spies within the Archer/Hernandez household confirmed that Paola was sewing her own trousseau, and that Eriana had given her carte blanche on its elaborate design. In fact, Carlo confirmed it to Kosso with his own words. If anything, Kosso brightened even further.

“Paola is obedient; she will accept her fate, just like any noblewoman. When she is my wife, she will put away any childish fantasies and take up the responsibilities of my house, as expected.”

Carlo wanted to punch him in the face, but he resisted the temptation. Barely.

I will not drown him in the canal. I will not throw him onto a burning pyre. I will not rip him into a thousand pieces. I will not...

“Signor Tocceri, we have been working closely together for nearly a week now. I should think that we have earned the right to not be so formal with each other.”

Kosso's smooth remark jolted him out of his mantra. “You're my employer, Signor Kosso. I should treat my employer with utmost respect, shouldn't I?”

Kosso laughed and clapped a hand on his shoulder. “Oh, Signor, Francesco was right. You are an idealist and a visionary. An engineering genius, but not so wise in the ways of the world. Do not worry, for with your skills and mine, together we'll remake the world.”

Carlo chuckled, but it sounded hollow. His previous reputation deterred any suspicion on Kosso's part; Francesco Foscari's hearty recommendation only enhanced Carlo's trustworthiness. If Kosso was ever aware of his new ways of thinking...

“If you say so, Signor.”

“Call me not so. I am Niccolò, and it would please me if you would call me so.”

He gritted his teeth as he shook Kosso's outstretched hand. “And I am Carlo.”

Kosso smiled and instructed his guard to bring him a bottle of good wine. When it arrived, Kosso poured in into two small glasses. He took one and offered Carlo the other. Carlo put down his compass and accepted it, much against his better judgment.

“To a fruitful business relationship, Carlo. May our combined skills revolutionize many cities and bring fame to our names.”

“Salute,” Carlo answered. Together, they drank the wine. It burned pleasantly down, all the way to his stomach. He gave the glass a look of wary respect, much to Kosso's amusement.

“You can have as much of that as you want now, Carlo. I indulge my associates in many ways.”

Carlo chuckled and shook his head. Was Kosso trying to get him drunk and let information slip? “I would rather have a clear mind as we finalize your architectural plans...Niccolò. Perhaps when the initial work is finished--”

“Of course.” Kosso put down his glass and re-focused his attention on the parchment. “Very well, then, we still have to redesign this particular storage area, for it still lies too close to the canal's water line, and it will flood if there is no reinforcement to the walls...”

Carlo nodded absently. Again, he thought, Why couldn't he simply devote his attention to the grandeur of buildings, and not to matters far above his intelligence or his inclinations? It will be the death of him.

Hours passed, and Kosso finally called a break for the midday meal. It was more lavish than Carlo had ever seen, with delicate cuts of lamb and fresh fruit and vegetables, and of course, more wine. If it was meant to take Carlo off his guard, it only did the opposite. As Kosso became more relaxed, Carlo was more alert. He recognized Kosso's reckless confidence; everything he wanted was at his fingertips now.

“I'm glad that Captain Archer has considered his options and has chosen to accept my proposal. I've known he is a man of intelligence, if not subtle grace.”

“Has he given you a definite response yet?”

“No, but I suspect that will only be formality, and come very soon. After all, both he and his wife are duly preparing for the ceremony. I plan to ask them to speed up those preparations, if at all possible.”

Carlo forced himself to remain pleasant. “Is that wise? After all, if it's supposed to happen anyway, why hasten it? All of Venice will know of your wedding; shouldn't it be perfect in every way?”

Kosso laughed and made a dismissive gesture. He replied, “It will be perfect. My father is currently in negotiation with Lady Eriana. He tells me that Signor Sovale and his wife are traveling here to Venice, presumably to witness the joining of our houses. If that isn't a sign of approval, I don't know what is.”

Carlo resisted a smile. Yes, Lady Eriana had arranged a meeting with Signor Cuvaccio, but he doubted the content of their conversation was what Kosso expected. “Ah. And with Signor Sovale's imminent arrival--”

“He is a very busy man. I doubt he would come back to Venice on a fool's errand. He treasures efficiency and logic; Sovale wouldn't tally long for a wedding ceremony. I plan to indulge his sense of...priority.”

Carlo shook his head. It was crafty, to blame Sovale for his wish to speed up the wedding arrangements. Captain Archer suspected that Kosso feared the Council of Ten might withdraw their support, once the truth of Kosso's shady dealings came to light. After all, even crooked men had to protect their own reputations.

“How generous of you.”

Kosso completely missed the irony in his tone. “Thank you. I take care of those whom I trust, and that also includes you, now. As long as you keep that trust, I will not have a reason to harm you.”

The threat was loud and clear, especially with the cold smile on his face. Carlo only nodded and gripped his meal knife even tighter, and resisted the temptation to use it.

Signor Cuvaccio shared many characteristics with his son, Kosso. Fortunately for John and Eriana, subtlety was one that Cuvaccio possessed that somehow hadn't been passed on to Kosso. Cuvaccio sighed and leaned against the windowsill, his eyes glued to the view of the canal below.

Eriana traded looks with John. The captain sighed and gazed at Cuvaccio. Neither envied the conflicting emotions the older man felt at this moment. Eriana felt a stab of guilt for having to do this, but it was sorely needed. For Cuvaccio's only blind spot was his son, and they needed his help to avert this disaster.

“Umbrico Sovale won't arrive in Venice for several days yet, Signora. It might take me that much time to accept what you've told me.” Cuvaccio finally faced them again. “Niccolò is my only child, and many have berated me for overindulging his wishes. Now I see the results of my transgression. I am truly sorry for what Niccolò has done.”

“We are sorry, too, Signor, that is must come to this,” John said gently.

“This is a heavy burden you have carried for years, Capitano. Why have you not told the proper authorities about this?”

Archer's smile was without humor. “Without tangible proof? And whom would you believed: the word of a charismatic nobleman or a common sea captain employed by him? It was only through the intercession of my wife that I'm here to have this conversation, Signor.”

Eriana nodded at Cuvaccio's sharp look at her. “Si, e vero, Signor. My cousin Isabella was ready to arrest my husband on charges of sedition and treason. Those weapons had been found on John's ships, and they would have been dangerous in the wrong hands. Somehow, your son managed to convince the authorities that it was an honest mistake, and John had nothing to do with it.”

“I know my son. He probably had a turn of heart when he realized how serious the situation was. Niccolò is impulsive, and not always aware of his actions upon others.”

“Perhaps, at first. But he has also implied he had the power to withdraw his testimony at will.”

Cuvaccio shook his head sharply. “The only way he could to that is that if he had proof that he was mistaken the first time. And going back on his earlier testimony would cast doubts on his own veracity. My son does many things, but he does not use blackmail.”

Eriana's tone was soft. “Unless he alone possesses that proof. And he has many friends among the Council of Ten.”

“That is nest of vipers. Niccolò would never--”

“I beg to differ, Signor. Unfortunately.”

Cuvaccio shoulders shook with anger and sorrow. Eriana held back her own tears; a parent would always see the good side of their child. When that child grew up to be a terror, that parent was always the last to realize it. Now the scope of Kosso's machinations was becoming clear, so clear that even his father couldn't deny it.

“Perhaps it is good that his mother is not alive to witness this. Yet if she were alive, perhaps it would not have to come to this at all,” Cuvaccio murmured. He squared his shoulders and glanced back at Archer with a nod. “Very well. If you are right, then we must stop this. If you are wrong...I will not forget. Am I understood?”

Archer nodded back, his eyes sober. “Understood clearly, Signor.”

The days passed slowly for Estrella, as Malcolm rested and healed. Both Lucasi and Floccia advised that they keep a low profile, at least until the excitement over the impending nuptials reached fever pitch. They had all heard the news, and Estrella couldn't believe that Captain Archer would acquiescence so easily to Kosso's demands. Then Traveo had arrived and told them about Lady Eriana's plan to derail Kosso's ambitions.

“Remind me not to anger the lady,” Malcolm said with a shudder. “She exacts revenge like a master.”

Estrella nodded and replied, “She is emotional, but ever since she married Captain Archer, she has tempered her anger like a sword. Don't underestimate either of them, Malcolm.”

He'd seen Archer on board Enterprize, and knew what kind of person Archer was. There were incidents on the high seas that brought out the best—and the worst—in men. Malcolm would never underestimate what the captain was capable of, despite the congenial personality.

“I should be there with Paola--”

“And you will be, love, but we must be patient. We must give them time.”

So the two of them spent the time talking. She taught Malcolm words of her native language, and some of the native Venetian dialect. In return, he told her about his interest in weapons, and the reason why he hadn't used the modified pistol in the alleyway. Estrella understood; Malcolm refused to take the life of another, unless there was no other way.

Estrella discovered many things about Malcolm, some things that he kept hidden from others. Yet neither mentioned the time they'd shared a pallet—in a manner of speaking—and although nothing had happened, the thought of it was enough to make Estrella blush.

Malcolm was a gentleman; he'd demonstrated as much. And he was also a man of principle, for she doubted he would make any dishonorable overtures. Estrella had no reason to fear him; it was her own desires that scared her. The more time she spent with him, the more she was certain. Estrella had read the story of Eve, the snake and the apple, and she suddenly understood the strength of temptation.

It wasn't proper, in her culture or his, and she must be mindful of that. But how long would propriety be excuse enough? She felt his gaze when he thought she wasn't aware of it, and he struggled with the same impulses.

On top of her tumultuous thoughts, she was aware of Floccia's keen observation. The Spaniard seemed amused at this tentative dance, though he said nothing. As for Lucasi, he ignored what didn't affect him directly.

Traveo appeared again four days later. To her relief, he told them, “I'm to transport you back to the Palazzo Pisano Moretti late tonight, under cover of darkness. Il Capitano and his wife know who are relaying information to Kosso; Capitan Ramirez will take care of them before your arrival.”

Malcolm sighed. “Thank you, Traveo. This inactivity is starting to unnerve me.”

Traveo chuckled in sympathy and he glanced at Estrella. “My apologies, but we had to be sure that you would be able to return in relative safety. According to Carlo, Kosso is busy with his plans for his new palazzo, and the Council of Ten is debating his request to hasten the preparations for the wedding. So everyone's attention is on other things, and not on you.”

Estrella nodded. “Misdirection is better than outright threats. Lady Eriana knows how to lull the suspicions of deceitful men.”

That evening, Lucasi insisted they pack more of the herbal medicines and other supplies, just in case. Although the relative peace had done Malcolm some good, they all knew that he could end up in another conflict in the near future. Floccia invited himself as an extra guardian; a doctor was a rare commodity, and he planned to offer his services to Lady Eriana and Captain Archer.

“All we have to do is wait,” Estrella told Malcolm. The two of them were alone in Lucasi's sickroom, as the sun dipped below the horizon. She squeezed his uninjured shoulder gently and added, “It won't be much longer.”

“Thank God. I feel like I can't sit here while Captain Archer deals with Kosso. I don't know what kind of mischief he's getting into--”

“Whatever it is, I'm sure Kosso will get the worst end of it.” Her hand remained on his shoulder, and he slid his free hand onto hers.

“I certainly hope so.” He leaned back against her, and she found that she didn't mind a bit. “I have the feeling that Carlo—Signor Tocceri—will play a role in this plan, and if it succeeds, he will--” Malcolm winced in pain, and Estrella felt it.

“Malcolm? What is it? Your shoulder?” She leaned in that direction, in order to check the bandage. She didn't expect Malcolm to turn his head in that direction as well, and they nearly collided with each other. Her eyes met his and she read his emotions deep within the pools of blue. It was enough to take her breath away. It took only a slight movement to close the gap and she brushed her lips against his in a gentle kiss.

It was meant to be a gentle kiss.

It stayed gentle for less than a minute.

He growled low in his throat as he drew her up against him. The pure passion swept away all misgiving, all hesitation, from her mind. She had never experienced such powerful emotions and she returned them in kind.

They had to come up for air. “God forgive me,” he whispered hoarsely as he pressed his forehead against hers. “I shouldn't—this isn't the place or the time—Estrella, love, if we don't stop now, I won't be able to--”

“Malcolm,” she whispered softly. Then she kissed him again and eased him down onto the narrow pallet. He pulled her down to join him. The last of the sunset glowed through the window, as it slowly turned into night, but neither of them noticed.


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May 2012

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